CB Corey Graham relishes opportunity with the Ravens

Corey Graham
(Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

The text messages started rolling in before Corey Graham even had a chance to settle in front of his locker late Sunday night following the finest game of his NFL career.

They came from friends, former coaches and old teammates. They came from people whom he speaks to regularly and others that the Ravens cornerback hadn't seen in years. At one time, Michael Clark fit into both of the latter categories.

Clark is Graham's older brother and best friend throughout his childhood. That relationship continued even after Clark was sentenced to prison for five years for possession of cocaine and marijuana with intent to deliver, but left Graham, then a freshman at the University of New Hampshire, feeling like he was on his own.

Those days are long over. Clark, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y., where he and Graham grew up, has been free since 2009 and he remains Graham's biggest supporter.

"He congratulated me and said, 'Way to go out there and make plays,'" Graham said of the text message that he got from his brother following the Ravens' 13-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He knows that I've been waiting a long time to get another opportunity. … He basically put the football in my hands ever since I was 5 years old. Every game, every practice growing up, he was always that guy. He pushed me and he showed me everything I know now. I'm just happy he's getting the opportunity to see me play again."

Pressed into the starting lineup because of injuries to Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, Graham was all over the field against Pittsburgh. He intercepted a Byron Leftwich pass in the third quarter and returned it 20 yards to set up the drive that resulted in Justin Tucker's 39-yard field goal, which proved to be the game winner.

Later in the quarter, the Steelers were eyeing the go-ahead touchdown when Graham made a nifty break-up in the end zone of a pass intended for Jerricho Cotchery on first down, and then forced an incompletion in the end zone on third down. He finished with eight tackles and three pass break-ups, not bad for a player who went more than two seasons without a start in the secondary.

"That's what you want. You always want an opportunity to show what you got," Graham said. "Over the last couple of years, I've been doing special teams, doing really well at it, and sometimes, you tend to get labeled as a special teamer. There's really nothing you can do about it. I feel like last year when I got an opportunity to play, I played nickel for three games with Chicago and I ended up with three interceptions in those three consecutive games. It just seems like I couldn't get over the hump. … For some reason, it just seemed like [Bears coach] Lovie Smith wanted me to be the guy on special teams. No matter what I did, that's what it came down to.

"I was just happy to get some new eyes to see me and get an opportunity to play. You just try to make the best out of every chance you get."

Graham, who played with the Bears for five seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 2011 as a special teams performer, signed a two-year, $3.7 million deal with the Ravens in late March as general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh identified upgrading their coverage teams a one of their offseason priorities.

With the Ravens, Graham, 27, knew that his special teams skills would be valued. But he also felt that he'd get an opportunity to get on the field more with the base defense, like what happened when his former teammate in Chicago, linebacker and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo, signed with the Ravens.

Graham had that opportunity with the Bears in 2008 when he started nine games and registered 93 tackles. But inexplicably — at least to Graham — he started only one game over the next three seasons and at one point, made a brief and ill-fated switch to safety.

"He kind of got lost a little bit in the mix in terms of the rotation within the secondary," said Jerry Azumah, who like Graham, played his college football at New Hampshire and then went on to become a Pro Bowl special teams player with the Bears. Azumah, who was active with the Bears in several capacities after he retired in 2006, became friends with Graham after he was drafted by Chicago.

"They gave him the opportunity to play special teams and from there, I just feel like he had a chip on his shoulder because he did want to play in the secondary. He basically took to special teams and that was the year he made the Pro Bowl. I think he was a little discouraged the Bears didn't give him that opportunity but it's working out now. I think this was the best fit for him to go to another team and work in the secondary."

University of New Hampshire football coach Sean McDonnell watched Graham's performance last Sunday in Pittsburgh and was hardly surprised. He first saw the skinny kid out of Buffalo's Turner Carroll High, a school that closed following Graham's senior season, on tape, playing on a high school field that was so small and poorly kept that McDonnell swore "he was playing in somebody's backyard."

Graham, a cornerback and kick returner in college, started as a freshman and then recovered from a broken fibula in his senior year quickly enough to participate in some pre-draft workouts and convince Chicago that he was worthy of a fifth-round pick. By then, Graham had come to grips with the fact that Clark, his brother and best friend, wasn't a daily presence in his life.

"He was very private about that to us when he was in college," McDonnell said. "What I think it did in a good way is that it made him recognize what he had to do, and how he had to handle himself to be successful. I know he's always stuck by his brother and his family. When that situation occurred and his brother rectified it, he used it as a learning experience and a motivational thing. But he also was proud of what his brother did in cleaning himself up."

Clark, now 36, was arrested near Indianapolis in 2004 and convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Graham spoke to his brother throughout his time incarcerated.

"It was tough, it was definitely a setback," said Graham who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Buffalo where drugs and crime were prevalent. "He was the one financially that gave me everything and did everything for me. He kind of put himself in harm's way to make sure I wasn't doing the wrong thing and I didn't need anything financially. We still talked to each other all the time. I went to visit him and all that but it was tough on me. I felt like I was kind of on my own. He never missed a game, he never missed a practice. You go from somebody who is always there to now you don't see him for year. It was like, 'Wow, I'm on my own for real.' It was a tough time for me but you just got to believe and keep going."

Clark, who Graham said was held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, was released in July 2009. The Ravens cornerback is hopeful that his brother will be at M&T Bank Stadium to see him play later this season.

"He's always been the one that supported me to the utmost. He's always been behind me, he's pushed me to be who I am today," Graham said. "He's gone through a lot in his life and right now, he'd doing great. He's working, he's staying away from the streets. All you can ask for is a person to go out there and do your best. That's what he's doing and I'm trying to do the same thing."



Name: Corey Graham

Birthday: July 25, 1985 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Height/Weight: 6-foot/196 pounds

College: New Hampshire

How he ended up with the Ravens: Signed a two-year deal as an unrestricted free agent in March 2012

Stats:In 10 games including two starts, Graham has 19 tackles, three passes defended and one interception

Quote: "He's been doing it ever since training camp. He's been doing it ever since he got here. I knew that he would come along and help this team out and not just on special teams." — Lardarius Webb

Recommended on Baltimore Sun